It’s February, and you know what that means – it’s American Heart Month. It’s that annual opportunity to review what we know about heart disease. And it’s our chance to be sure we’re doing everything we can to prevent or manage it in our lives.
After all, heart disease is the leading killer of both men and women in the US. About 655,000 Americans die from heart disease each year – that’s 1 in every 4 deaths.
What’s more, almost half of all Americans are at risk for developing the condition. The good news is that heart disease is preventable in most people.
Heart disease encompasses a wide array of conditions affecting the heart and blood vessels. These conditions include arrhythmias, cardiomyopathy, congenital heart defects, heart infections, and the main form of heart disease, coronary artery disease (CAD).
Heart disease is often grouped with stroke and related conditions under the more global term cardiovascular disease (CVD). CVD involves a number of diseases of the heart and circulatory system. Other conditions that fall under CVD include heart attack, heart failure, and heart valve disorders.
While stroke, heart attack and the other CVD disorders are serious conditions, we’ll concentrate our discussion today on heart disease and primarily on CAD, its most prevalent form.
CAD is a disorder of your coronary arteries, the blood vessels that supply your heart muscle with fresh, oxygenated blood. With CAD, the coronary arteries become blocked with a fatty material called plaque, which prevents oxygen and nutrients from getting to your heart. This can lead to a heart attack and to the death of heart muscle tissue.
One common symptom of CAD is a type of chest pain called angina, which may feel like a tightness, heaviness or pressure in your chest. Other symptoms include shortness of breath, sweating, dizziness, weakness, nausea, and rapid heartbeat. It may also feel like your heart is pounding hard and fluttering or skipping beats. These feelings are called palpitations.
Symptoms of heart disease can differ in women. They may feel classic angina in the form of chest pain or pressure, but more often feel chest tightness, squeezing, burning, and general discomfort. Women are also more likely than men to experience discomfort in the arms, neck, jaw, throat, or back.
There are certain risk factors for CAD. These factors increase your chances for developing the condition. They can also make it more likely existing heart disease will get worse. Some of these risk factors, such as age, gender, and having a family history of heart disease, cannot be changed.
Age is a big factor. Your risk increases if you’re a women over age 55 or a man over 45. The same is true if your father or brother had heart disease before age 55, or your mother or sister had it before age 65. These are all things you can’t do anything about.
There are other risk factors, however, that you can control. These include having high blood pressure and/or high cholesterol, having diabetes or prediabetes, smoking, being overweight or obese, being physically inactive, eating an unhealthy diet, and drinking a lot of alcohol. These are the risk factors you should be putting your energy into changing.
The best way to determine your risk for CAD or another type of heart disease is by partnering with your doctor. He or she will evaluate your blood pressure, cholesterol level, blood glucose to check for diabetes, weight, personal and family medical history, and lifestyle.
Your doctor can then recommend steps to lower your risk for heart disease or treat the condition if you already have it.
If you are at risk for heart disease or have already been diagnosed with it, there are some actions you can take to reduce the chance of getting heart disease or keep it from getting worse. Your doctor may recommend simple lifestyle changes and/or drug treatments.
Among the steps you can take to lower your heart disease risk or slow its progression is to control your high cholesterol and high blood pressure. This can often be done by adjusting your diet and getting more exercise, but it may require medication. Be sure to have your cholesterol and blood pressure checked regularly.
Lifestyle changes are pretty much common sense. They including eating a heart-healthy diet that is rich in high-fiber foods and low in saturated and trans fats; becoming more active; getting and staying at a healthy weight; quitting smoking; drinking alcohol in moderation, and managing stress, which can have a negative effect on your heart.
If you’re at high risk for heart disease or already have it, your doctor may recommend that you take an aspirin every day to reduce your chances of having a heart attack. But don’t take aspirin on your own without talking to your doctor first. It isn’t the best course of action for all people.
Now that you’ve been reminded about the basics of heart disease and CAD, you can better take care of your heart health – during American Heart Month and the rest of the year as well.